Eve Burke-Edwards continues our ‘A Feminist Ruins’ series by analysing Taylor Swift’s faux-feminism and victim complex.
There’s a strange protective bubble that lingers around Taylor Swift. When I’ve publicly aired my disapproval of her, I’ve often been shut down. The fact that her fans defend her honour no matter what suggests what a positive leading figure she should be to many, but in reality, it feels like her fans are being duped: they’ve been cast as the seven dwarfs protecting the hapless, virtuous Snow White, without realising that she, herself, is the poisoned apple.
Her persona is packed with faux-feminism, picking and choosing elements when they benefit her. In the early days of her career, she denounced feminism because she feared alienating her male fans (obviously problematic), but has somehow come to be recognised as a feminist icon by many. The first case used to back up this argument is her interaction with Apple.
When Apple Music first emerged on the music streaming scene, they promised users a free three-month trial to gauge whether they wanted to commit to the new software. Swift responded negatively and promptly withdrew her body of work from Apple Music since artists would not be paid any royalties from the music streamed over that period. She stated in June 2015 that “three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing”. She’s right – and situating this in the context of the current gender pay gap, her vocalness seems empowering for female artists, particularly as Apple Music changed their policy as a result.
But Swift’s argument over Apple’s streaming service was twofold – that by providing free trials, they were taking the artists’ rightful money, and that they reduced the integrity of the art of music. In light of this, it’s interesting to raise the fact that 3 months earlier, in March, she uploaded all of her music – except 1989 – to Tidal Hi-Fi. This was the only version of the service available at the time, and it cost $19.99 a month. Swift pitched herself as a victim of the corporate music industry, whilst making her own music inaccessible and elitist. This was not a feminist statement or about the integrity of the art or the artist. It was about money.
In fact, Swift seems to have an overarching victim complex. This came to light back in 2009, when she, as a frail, waif-like young country star got interrupted and undermined by Kanye West in her moment of glory at the VMAs. We all felt bad for the confused Swift as she stood there, embarrassed, as West declared that Beyonce should’ve won the award. It’s an incident many are tired of hearing about, but it’s also important to observe how Swift has manipulated this moment throughout her career.
Swift has managed time and again to position herself as innocent. In the case of her ‘Famous’ interactions with West in 2016, she framed that innocence as that of a white woman subjected to unwarranted sexualisation from a black man. Race was of utmost importance in these interactions. West’s line in his song ‘Famous’ – “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous” – was unsurprisingly met with global criticism.
Kanye West defended it, claiming that he had Swift’s permission to reference her in this way. Swift’s official response to this was that she had “cautioned him against releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message”. Kim Kardashian-West went on to expose Taylor Swift’s duplicity in the situation by sharing a secretly recorded phone call between Swift and West prior to the song’s release on social media. In this phone call, we can hear Swift say: “ Yeah, go with whatever line makes you feel better, it’s obviously very tongue-in-cheek either way. And I really appreciate you telling me about it, that’s really nice”. The conversation goes on as such in a very friendly manner.
Swift’s initial response to ‘Famous’ is very important to note, as it reiterates the victim-villain image that was cemented in the minds of the public after the 2009 VMAs. More worryingly, it showed that this celebrity feud was symptomatic of deeper historic racist attitudes. Ellie Woodward of BuzzFeed clarifies this, stating that ‘it proved that Swift recognised that power her white womanhood affords her – presumed innocence and empathy – and used this to her advantage… Swift propagating this narrative of fragile white womanhood to villainize a black man is “ruthless” at best, and at worst, dangerous’.
When we take into account her interactions with Nicki Minaj on Twitter a year prior to this, Swift’s willing ignorance of racism in the music industry, combined with her purported victimhood, becomes even more obvious. The exchanges concerned the industry’s snub of ‘Anaconda’ for video of the year. Minaj’s tweets claim that “other” girls get the nomination – she never clarified who she meant here – and only videos which “celebrate women with very slim bodies”. Swift presumed this as a slight against her nomination for the Bad Blood video and claimed: “it’s unlike you to pit women against each other” (an ironic comment, considering the video she was nominated for). When Minaj advised Swift to recognise these problems within the music industry and to “speak on this”, Taylor Swift gave a pitiful response: “If I win, please come up with me!!” Many have argued this retort was made out of her genuine naivety, but that doesn’t excuse Swift’s failure to acknowledge Minaj’s request for her to challenge the industry.
Cut to 2017, with the release of Reputation. This was Swift’s attempt to hit back at her so-called ‘snakes’ – we’ve all seen the ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ video and its obvious symbolism. She supposedly embraces her ‘bad’ side on this album, breaking out of the cookie-cutter mould she’s been in for the past decade. Even with this rebellious single, though, Swift still manages to position herself as blameless: look at what you made me do. The lexicon surrenders any agency or responsibility for her actions. Instead, it permits Swift to justify them as a natural response to feeling threatened. More troubling is to recognise that the phrase itself, ‘look what you made me do’, rings clear in the minds of many survivors of domestic abuse. Brandi Neal of Bustle stated that her language ‘reinforces victim blaming’, and that Swift’s ‘ignorance is in no way an excuse for using this language’ which is so sensitive to many.
My fundamental problem with Taylor Swift is that she represents the elitism that comes with being a white female. She propagates a mentality of victimhood and willful ignorance, under the guise of sweetness and naivety. That is what is most dangerous about her.
… and Beyonce did have one of the best videos of all time.
Illustration by Francesca Newton.